Book clubs are having a ‘senior’ moment

  • Allie Shah
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
12:00 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018 Community
Barb Link makes a point during the discussion about “A Wrinkle in Time” on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 at a book club gathering at The Summit in Eden Prairie, Minn. (Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Armed with books and an intellectual appetite, about a dozen residents of Summit Place Senior Campus in Eden Prairie, Minn., arrived in the great room on a recent evening, eager to feed their hungry minds.

For the next hour, they snacked on brownies and sipped pink lemonade and coffee while chewing over their latest book club selection, “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle.

Hennepin County associate librarian Julia Sjoberg kept the conversation going, prompting the women with questions such as: What makes a book a classic? And, is this particular children’s book worthy of the distinction?

“To me, it is a classic,” Ruth Fingerson, 78, volunteered. “Because in 1962 and in 2017, girls need to get the message that they can be agents in their own lives.”

The others nodded solemnly in agreement.

As they continued comparing notes about the book’s characters, themes and plot, the women also told stories about their own lives.

Fingerson, a retired elementary school teacher, talked of her experience first reading “A Wrinkle in Time” years ago. Others shared anecdotes about their children and grandchildren.

“This does give them a chance to get to know their neighbors,” said Susan Woodwick, service manager for outreach for Hennepin County Library.

The county library system is helping to launch book clubs like the one at Summit Place in an effort to foster more social interaction among older adults and to help keep their minds active.

The senior book clubs have emerged as a way to get books and other library materials to people who have trouble getting to the libraries. So far, there are nine retirement communities, senior centers and libraries with clubs.

“This can really be transformative in these settings, where sometimes it can be a tough setting to break into socially,” Woodwick said. “Sometimes the most active reader may not be out there socially.”

Older adults are especially vulnerable to social isolation, studies have shown.

Prolonged social isolation has been linked to depression, high blood pressure and dementia, among other conditions. Health risks of social isolation are akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect program.

Meanwhile, research shows that learning new things and connecting socially may help to keep the mind sharp. In fact, joining a book club is one of the activities recommended by the Global Council for Brain Health to help strengthen the aging brain.

Doing an activity with others makes it more likely that you’ll continue to do it, according to the council. That evidence resonated with Woodwick, who said that the seniors who participated in the county libraries’ book clubs reported that they are now reading more.

The libraries offer book club kits, including large-print books, and discussion questions, as well as a professional librarian who can lead the discussions.

“We wanted to make them more friendly,” Woodwick said, noting that the conversations were not meant to be stuffy. “We’re mindful that this is not English Literature 101. That’s not the purpose of these discussions.”

People living in senior residences can become isolated easily. The clubs give them an opportunity to socialize and to exercise their minds, through reading and through listening to others’ perspectives.

A recent survey of participants in the Hennepin County Library senior book clubs revealed that 19 percent reported that they changed their opinion about something after the discussion.

“That’s a reminder that people are continuing to think about what’s going on in the world,” Woodwick said.

It’s not only the senior residents who are getting something out of the book clubs.

“The librarians say it’s the most rewarding part of their job,” Woodwick said.

Having friends or a community of colleagues is a strong defense against depression and anxiety, particularly as we age, said Alison Romstad, a geriatric nurse practitioner for Fairview Health Services.

Maintaining strong social connections also can lower hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure), which is often the precursor to heart disease, she said.

Making the transition from living in one’s own home with known neighbors to senior housing with new people can be difficult.

While reading is a solitary activity, it’s one that challenges the mind — another key to aging well. Taking part in group discussions, in which participants are listening to other people’s thoughts and ideas, also sharpens the mind.

“It’s that stretching of the brain that keeps it young,” Romstad said.

Members of the Summit Place book club said participating in the every-other-month discussions gives them something enjoyable to do, and something to look forward to.

The club provides another benefit for Fingerson, who is a caregiver for her husband, who has Parkinson’s disease. “It gets me thinking about other things. It’s a stress reliever.”